You don’t have to go very far to find someone criticising the Premier league. the complaints themselves repeated so often as to be familiar: Players are paid too much, not enough wealth trickles down to the grass roots, the gap between the elite and the rest of the field has grown into a gaping chasm. Ordinary fans are priced out of grounds, clubs don’t take cups seriously and so on.
In many of these cases there is some legitimacy to the complaints, though in other cases it can feel as if there is an expectation that the Premier League should solve all the games ills – not to mention societies. This however, is no attempt to debate the merits, or otherwise of the multitudinous critiques on offer, but simply to say that as football fans we should simply sit back and enjoy the Premier League.
The league, as it is, contains the world’s best players, managers and serves up a compelling spectacle with a side-order of real-life soap opera. Despite years of inflation-busting ticket price rises, fans flock to matches, in many cases filling grounds to capacity.
The truth is however, that whilst we may have been singing “footballs coming home” in 1996 English football has no God given right to host the world’s most lucrative football contest and the harder truth is that one day it will all come to an end.
We may lay claim seniority as the league is the world’s oldest – beginning in 1888 – but in reality this counts for very little – just look at the recent past. By the time it was approaching its centenary in the late 1980s the league was in a truly sorry state; Chronic underinvestment had resulted in outdated and unsafe stadia, hooliganism dragged the games reputation through the mud and attendances, which had been declining for decades, had slumped to their lowest levels since before the war. In the meantime the league periodically lost its best players to leagues in Italy, Spain and France – even our biggest and most prestigious clubs unable to hold on to them.
No greater contrast could be made than with Italy’s Serie A; Average crowds at the time were considerably higher that of the English league (according to the European Football Statistics Website in the 1984/85 season Serie A crowds averaged upwards of 38,000 compared to just above 21,000 for the English Division One). Italian clubs also routinely broke transfer fee records and ahead of the 1990 World Cup Italian stadia received a massive windfall of public money.
Today however, the position couldn’t be more different. Italian league football has experienced two decades of decline. Its clubs, no longer the powers they once were, have seen their financial clout diminish and the last time an Italian club broke the world transfer fee record was in the year 2000 when Hernan Crespo moved from Parma to Lazio for upwards of 335 million. Further evidence of the relative decline of Italian football can be found in Deloitte’s 2016 Football Monet League which ranks European Clubs according to the revenue they generate. Just one Italian side, Juventus, makes the top 10, compared to five English sides.
The slide of Italian football can be put down to a whole range of factors – one of which is the impact of corruption scandals on the league. Equally the rise of the English League is due to a unique confluence of historical, social and technological factors. The Taylor Report, in the wake of 1989’s Hillsborough tragedy, led to a wave of investment in stadia, with many clubs opting to construct brand new grounds. These grounds were not only safer, but featured revenue generating additions. The club shop became a ‘superstore’ and grounds included hotels, and conference facilities whilst they also included expanded executive boxes and facilities to deliver a premium match day experience.
New broadcasting technology also brought opportunity of a new transformative revenue stream. The restructuring of English Football which came about in 1992 with the Premier league breakaway enabled the top clubs to flourish by providing them with a larger slice of this growing revenue stream. Free from any responsibilities towards clubs in lower divisions the elite clubs were able to spend more on facilities and players. The price though – and the source of many of today’s complaints – was to restrict the funds available to English footballs other professional sides (a unique feature of English football being it’s sheer depth.)
All this came at the right time to enable English clubs to reap maximum benefit from the Bosman Ruling of 1995. The impact of this was to make a whole continent of football players available to whoever could pay the most in wages. This latter point is where neo-liberalism kicks in. With a low tax regime English clubs had something of an advantage when it came to paying player’s salaries which automatically put them in most countries top tax brackets.
There are of course many more factors, but what this illustrates is that English football finds itself in its current position not because of divine intervention, but because of a range of circumstances. That such circumstances change is however, an inevitability. Already there is uncertainty over Brexit which may well have an impact on English clubs ability to recruit continental talent unhindered. Beyond this there have at various points been touted proposals for a European Super League, whilst the Chinese League can be seen by some as a future challenger to the Premier Leagues hegemony.
That the Premier League’s fortunes are largely based on broadcasting revenue which can evaporate at a moment’s notice is perhaps a further cause for concern. The story of Serie A ultimately shows that even a league with a seemingly solid foundation of success can be undermined. The final point is this: Whatever the cause of the Premier Leagues fall may be the fall will come and we will look back on this period of English football as a golden age, one of packed (relatively new) grounds, the world’s top players and pure excitement. We will walk past these grounds in our old age and our grandchildren will marvel at the stories we tell of the scenes we once saw inside. Our present complaints – even if they are justified – will have been long forgotten.